Why Do Chefs Set Their Pans on Fire? (3 Common Reasons)

A pan on fire in a restaurant can be a shocking sight. So, why do chefs set their pans on fire? Are they crazy? Won’t it burn the food or pose a fire danger?

Believe it or not, chefs set their pan on fire purposely. Below, we’ll cover why this dramatic practice is necessary. 

Why Do Chefs Set Their Pans on Fire?

Chefs set their pans on fire for multiple reasons. Sometimes, it’s an accident, but usually, it’s on purpose through a process known as flambéing. 

Flambé is a French word that directly translates to flame. It refers to a cooking process in which chefs use alcohol to light a dish on fire. As the alcohol burns off, the fire dissipates, leaving the food caramelised and ready to enjoy. 

Flambé dish cooking in pan

Accidental Oil/Grease Fires

Welcome to Chef FAQ
Welcome to Chef FAQ

Sometimes the flames you see sprout from a hot kitchen pan are due to an accidental oil or grease fire in a worst-case scenario. Oil and grease buildup is common in commercial kitchens, and commercial stoves can reach high temperatures fast. 

When oil reaches extra-high temperatures, far higher than you’d usually cook with, it will smoke and then can catch fire. 

Oil fires can happen at home, but they’re far more likely in a restaurant where busy cooks may not closely watch oil temperature as it heats. 

Luckily, grease fires are relatively easy to put out, and most kitchen staff know how to stop them. By covering the pot with a lid or using a chemical extinguisher, cooks and chefs quickly extinguish grease fires. 

Flambéing (for Drama)

Assuming the flames aren’t because of an accidental fire, they may be for show. Tableside preparations became popular in the 19th century as entertainment, and they remain in demand at many restaurants today. 

Chefs or educated maître d’s often finish dishes tableside to impress guests. Common tableside preparations include everything from tossing Caesar salads to making guacamole from scratch. They also don their apron and start flambéing right at your table. 

There’s nothing more exciting than lighting a flame in front of guests. It’s shocking, edgy, and seems slightly dangerous. 

From Baked Alaska to seared scallops, flambéing tableside is common practice because it adds value through drama. Guests love the show and are typically willing to pay more for it.  

pan with big flames

Flambéing (for Flavour)

Flambéing does more than add drama to a dish. In many cases, chefs use it even behind the scenes to add flavour to sweets and meats. It’s thought that the high heat involved in flambéing creates caramelised flavours while removing alcohol. 

However, how much flambéing affects flavour is a matter of contention. As this Cornell study shows, flambéing may not add the flavour effects chef’s claim it will. The alcoholic liquors may be more responsible for flavour than the flames. 

Still, the practice is standard for many recipes, whether prepared in front of guests or behind the scenes.  

What Does Flambéing Do? Is It Just for Show?

Flambéing fans say that this cooking process adds flavour as well as drama to any dish. 

It’s thought the flames’ high temps, which can easily reach over 700 degrees Celsius (1300 degrees Fahrenheit), help to caramelise meat’s surface, creating a decadent and well-seasoned crust. 

The same goes for sweets, like bananas foster or cherries jubilee. The flames add caramelisation, giving desserts a sweet but rich quality.  

That said, research doesn’t back the flavour claim up. Though the flames get very hot, the surface of the meat or sweet doesn’t reach high enough temps to brown or caramelise. That’s because the fire quickly subsides well before the dish can sear. 

So, in truth, flambéing may be more for show than adding flavour. The liquor chef’s use will add flavour to the dish, but you could get that without setting fire to it. 

One Reddit user (and presumed chef) suggests flambéing is more like a controlled explosion. You can add the alcohol flavour without worrying about it igniting when you’re not expecting it.

What Types of Alcohol Are Used for Flambéing?

The types of alcohol chefs use for flambéing typically include rum, cognac, or flavorful liquors. You can use any liquor as long as it contains around 40% alcohol. 

Less alcohol than that won’t ignite, and more alcohol can be troublesome. Chefs usually avoid using Bacardi 151 rum, as an example, because its alcohol content is so high that ignition becomes dangerous. 

Some chefs will also add cinnamon to their flambé. Cinnamon ignites, creating more prominent, more showy flames. 

Do Chefs Flambé with Wine?

Chef’s don’t flambé with wine because the wine will not ignite. Wines usually contain about 12% alcohol, which isn’t enough to catch fire the way a liquor would. The same goes for beer and other low-alcohol products. 

Does Alcohol Burn Off in Flambé?

Alcohol burns off in part when you flambé a dish, but it would be false to say it burns off entirely. 

For example, take Bananas Foster, a classic flambé-induced dessert. Upwards of 75% of the alcohol is still present after flambéing. Of course, as the plate sits, the alcohol continues to cook off, so over time, the alcohol content gets lower. 

food flambe in pan

Can You Flambé Without Alcohol?

You need alcohol to flambé by definition, but there are ways of flambéing without adding alcohol to your food. You could, for example, soak sugar cubes in a flavour extract, like vanilla. 

Flavour extracts contain alcohol in similar amounts to most liquors. So you can place the soaked sugar cubes around the edge of your dish and light them to create flames. 

The alcohol won’t touch the food in the centre of your plate but will still create a stunning ring of flames that smells of delightful caramelised sugars. This method is an excellent way to flambé without liquor.  

What Are the Most Popular Flambé Dishes?

The most popular flambé dishes include: 

  • Bananas Foster
  • Baked Alaska
  • Cherries Jubilee
  • Steak Diane
  • Crepes Suzette
  • Creme Brulee
  • Scallop Flambé 
  • Christmas Pudding 

Can You Flambé on Any Stove?

Technically, you can flambé on any stove. Most commercial kitchens use gas stoves, so flambéing on them is the most common, but both electric and induction stoves still work. 

Electric

If you’re attempting to flambé on an electric stove, the biggest struggle will be getting it hot enough. Electric stoves take longer to heat pans, so you may need to remove the food you plan to flambé before your pan is thoroughly heated. 

Otherwise, you risk overcooking your shrimp or steak. 

Once the pan is very hot, you can add the alcohol, then quickly return the food to the pan. After that, ignite the alcohol to set fire to the dish. 

Gas

Flambéing on a gas stove is traditional and straightforward. Gas stoves can reach much higher temperatures than their electric counterparts. So, all you have to do is get the pan hot and then add the alcohol. Ignite it using a long wooden match or kitchen lighter. 

Induction

Induction cooktops heat pans directly, allowing you to get the pan very hot, very fast. A hot pan is critical to flambéing, and igniting a flame with an induction stove isn’t a problem. 

Can You Flambé with a Lighter?

Yes, you can flambé with a lighter, but you should use a kitchen lighter for safety purposes rather than one for cigarettes. Flambés ignite quickly, and the flames can be shockingly large, so you want to keep your hand far from the fire. 

Kitchen lighters have long handles, which will allow you to keep your hand safe. You can also use long wooden matches to flambé. 

Can You Flambé in Any Pan?

When flambéing, you want to make sure you avoid using non-stick pans. You should avoid using these pans because their coating will diminish if the pan gets too hot, effectively ruining your non-stick pan from then on. 

You also want to avoid aluminium which may produce melted or scorched spots under high temps. 

Though cast iron will hold up to the heat of flames without fail, you risk burning the hard-earned seasoning off their surface when using alcohol. So, cast iron pans are also a no-go when you want to flambé. 

That means stainless steel is the best choice for flambéing. Ideally, your pan will have sides over an inch deep and a tight-fitting lid. Keep the lid nearby for safety purposes. If the flames become unruly, throwing the lid on top will block oxygen and put the fire out. 

You can also use copper pans to flambé. Again, look for one with high, sloping sides and a tight-fitting lid. 

What Is a Flambé Pan?

flambe in stainless steel pan

A flambé pan is a frying pan or a sauté pan. It’s usually stainless steel or copper with no non-stick finishes. It should have high, sloping sides that help keep the flames contained. 

Flambé pans should have a tight-fitting lid which you can use to control the flames if they get too big. 

They should also be high-quality. You’ll be exposing the pan to intense heat, so you need something that can withstand the stress. It means that flambé pans are typically expensive but well worth the cost. A top-notch flambé pan will last for years to come.